The Wikileaks co-founder says the internet can be both a tool of political empowerment and the road to dystopia
How do you think people’s view of powerful tech companies like Google has changed since Edward Snowden leaked the National Security Agency documents?
People seeing Google’s colourful, playful, childish logo billions of times per day creates a sense that the company is harmless and just a service like turning on the tap and getting some water. It is as if it doesn’t exist as a political or corporate entity.
When it was revealed that Google was extensively cooperating with the NSA through the PRISM system a bit of the gloss came off. But Google and other Silicon Valley companies like Facebook pivoted after a lot of outrage from their users and tried to separate themselves from the NSA. They made it seem like it was something they were coerced into.
What about Google’s motto of “Don’t be Evil”?
It’s not that I want people to see Google as an evil company run by evil people. It’s simply the nature of Google’s business to collect as much information about as many people as possible, to store that information, index it, create a profile of each person, predict their interests and sell those profiles to advertisers and others. And that is exactly the same industry, at an engineering level, that the NSA is involved in. Collecting information about people, storing it, indexing it, making predictive profiles about people and then “selling” it to other US government agencies. Given that Google and the NSA are in fundamentally the same business, the NSA has of course piggybacked on Google and extracted information from it. It’s so attractive to the NSA that it will continue forever, one way or another.
What frightens you about the future?
There are clear dystopian trends underway. If you read a book like 1984 now, it seems quaint. Its form of surveillance seems tame. But the internet does two things: it centralises power because it connects everywhere in the world to what are already the centres of power, but it also permits the greatest worldwide political education that has ever occurred. It’s not at all clear which one of these will dominate. It’s important to try and shift things in the right direction. The dystopian scenario which we’re at least in part heading towards is very severe indeed.
Is the internet broken?
It needs to be re-engineered. Most of the technology used on the internet now is about 15 to 30 years old. It’s been around for long enough for major power factions to adapt to it and to work out how to exploit and control it. Bitcoin’s block chain – the publicly distributed digital ledger that records all transactions on the Bitcoin network – is the most intellectually interesting development in the last five years, though not for the reasons most people think.
At its core the block chain provides global proof of publishing at a certain time. That means that once something is in the block chain it identifies precisely what moment in history it occurred and can’t be undone. This breaks Orwell’s dictum that he who controls the past controls the future and who controls the present controls the past.
Looking back, is there anything that you would have done differently with WikiLeaks?
Many little things. Of course, if you can’t say that after a big project, you’re not learning. But not many major ones, given the resource constraints. If you’re under banking blockades or house arrest, worldwide manhunts and people defining members of staff as enemy combatants that can be kidnapped or assassinated at will, it does limit some of the things that you might otherwise have been able to do.
Do you feel the main work has been accomplished?
I hope there’s much still to come. But we have some important accomplishments under our belt. Contributing to the shift in the internet from quite a barren, uneducated and apolitical space five years ago to a political space where young people feel they can take part in history is possibly the most significant development.
Julian Assange is co-founder of Wikileaks, the website that famously leaked sensitive US military and diplomatic documents in 2010. Since June 2012 he has been living in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he sought asylum after facing potential extradition to Sweden over allegations of sexual assault. He has just written a new book, When Google Met WikiLeaks (OR Books)
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